By Rajeev Sharma
Pakistan appears to have opened a new chapter in its bilateral relations with India by pitch forking the young and vivacious Hina Rabbani Khar to the high post of Foreign Minister and Khar proved her mettle by her mature remarks and confident body language at the joint press stakeout at New Delhi’s Hyderabad House on July 27 after formal talks with her Indian counterpart S M Krishna. The 34-year-old Khar, Pakistan’s youngest and first woman foreign minister, pleasantly surprised the Indians by not mentioning the K-word during her almost ten-minute-long speech.
This is significant because the first thing she had done after landing in New Delhi on July 26 evening was to hold separate meetings with Kashmiri separatist leaders. Her softly-worded positive speech was in direct contrast to her high-profile predecessor Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s shrill remarks at a joint press conference with Krishna in Islamabad a year ago that wrecked the event. Khar’s non-mention of Kashmir in her speech was no oversight but a well-planned strategy by Pakistan as even the three-page Indo-Pak Joint Statement did not mention “the core issue of Kashmir”, though the document did acknowledge that the two sides discussed Jammu and Kashmir, among other subjects.
This is an important softening in the Pakistani diplomacy at a senior-level official bilateral engagement whose significance cannot be diluted if Khar were to speak her mind on “the core issue of Kashmir” during her public engagements in the remainder of her India visit or after reaching home. It is tough to recall when was the last time when K-word got omitted in an Indo-Pak Joint Statement.
Apart from this, there were many concrete deliverables that would be enough to characterize as successful Khar’s maiden trip abroad as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister. The atmospherics were cool and a rare cordiality pervaded the conference hall as the two delegations talked for about three hours, reviewed the status of bilateral relations on such diverse issues as Counter-Terrorism (including progress on Mumbai trial) and Narcotics Control; Humanitarian issues; Commercial & Economic cooperation; Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project; Sir Creek; Siachen; Peace & Security including CBMs; Jammu & Kashmir; and promotion of friendly exchanges. Instead of throwing barbs at each other on the issue of terrorism, the two foreign ministers agreed to the need for continued discussions, in a purposeful and forward looking manner, with a view to finding a peaceful solution by narrowing divergences and building convergences.
At the end of the talks the two sides announced a total of 14 Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) – seven for cross-LoC trade and seven for cross-LoC travel. This is indeed a far cry from the hitherto well known stand of Pakistan – Kashmir first, trade later. To demonstrate that this talk about boosting travel and trade across the Line of Control was no flash in the pan, Krishna and Khar laid down a mechanism and agreed that a Joint Working Group will henceforth meet on a bi-annual basis to review existing arrangements and suggest additional measures for Cross-LoC travel and trade.
It is a welcome sign and vindication of the long-practised Indian diplomacy that the majority of the Indo-Pak Joint Statement is devoted to strengthening trade, travel and people-to-people contacts. They said the two sides will continue to discuss weightier issues like Siachen, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project and Sir Creek and reiterated their commitment to seeking early and amicable solutions to all these issues. They reaffirmed their commitment to the Indus Waters Treaty, the only bilateral treaty that has not been violated even during wars.
Against this backdrop, it was not surprising that a visibly elated Krishna said “I must say that I am satisfied at the progress achieved in this round of the resumed dialogue…While being fully cognisant of the challenges that lie ahead, I can confidently say that our relations are on the right track. We have some distance to travel, but with an open mind and a constructive approach, which has been demonstrated in this round of dialogue, I am sure we can reach our desired destination of having a friendly and cooperative relationship between the two countries.” On the issue of terrorism, Krishna said: “We have agreed that terrorism poses a continuing threat to peace and security and reiterated the firm and undiluted commitment of the two countries to fight and eliminate this scourge in all its forms and manifestations. We have also agreed on the need to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism to bring those responsible for terror crimes to justice.”
All this looks too good to be true and against the well-set cyclical pattern of one-step-forward, two-steps-backward in the 64-year-long history of Indo-Pak ties. Another big ticket terror strike takes place in India and the entire bonhomie would evaporate and the bilateral relations would return to freezing point. Pakistan is hardly a country with which India can achieve substantive long-term results at the foreign ministers’ level talks. If Indo-Pak peace process can be galvanized meaningfully, it is only at the summit level talks. There too lies a catch. Such a summit meeting has to be well planned and the Pakistan President must have 100 per cent backing from the all-powerful Pakistan Army. Also, the Indian political leadership must be united at such a summit meeting.
That is why when Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani travelled to Mohali at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to watch the Cricket World Cup semi-final clash between India and Pakistan, it was at best an essay in cricket diplomacy and bilateral ties were hardly under focus. Pakistan could have gone beyond cricket diplomacy had President Asif Ali Zardari, who also had been invited by the Indian PM, chosen to attend the event himself. Zardari’s decision was right as after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks the pace fabric had been torn into smithereens and Zardari’s India visit would have merely been like a futile exercise of sustaining a snow flake in an oven.
The failed Agra summit of 1999 between a newly self-crowned President Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was another classic example of how not to conduct Indo-Pak summitry. The only historic Indo-Pak summit in recent times has been in January 2004 in Islamabad between Musharraf and Vajpayee when the latter visited Islamabad in connection with SAARC summit. This was not even a bilateral visit for Vajpayee and yet the two principles displayed immense political will and maturity to attempt a major repair in bilateral ties of their nations.
A giant leap forward in Indo-Pak bilateral relations can come about if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to embark upon a bilateral visit to Pakistan. But the fact is that no such opportunity has come up for Manmohan Singh in the past seven years of his prime ministerial career. Before Hina Rabbani Khar’s India visit there was no cause for optimism that such an opportunity would present itself in the remaining three years of Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Her visit has made a new beginning if only this tempo can be sustained.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])